Churches Sue Newsom After California Bans Singing, Chanting in Places of Worship Over COVID-19 Fears

Isabel van Brugen
By Isabel van Brugen
July 17, 2020US News
Churches Sue Newsom After California Bans Singing, Chanting in Places of Worship Over COVID-19 Fears
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at his daily news briefing at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services in Rancho Cordova, Calif., on April 9, 2020. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo)

Three churches in Northern California filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom, seeking to overturn his ban on singing and chanting during indoor religious services.

The federal suit (pdf) was filed by a number of advocacy groups, including the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), on behalf of the River of Life Church in Oroville, Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg, and Calvary Chapel of Ukiah.

It came in response to guidelines (pdf) issued on July 1 by the California Department of Public Health, which states that places of worship and cultural ceremonies must “discontinue indoor singing and chanting activities” and limit indoor attendance to 25 percent of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower, as part of measures to curb the transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus.

The virus is more easily transmitted indoors and singing releases minuscule droplets that can carry the disease. Some groups argue it infringes on religious freedom while others believe it’s constitutional, especially during a pandemic.

The plaintiffs in their lawsuit argue that Newsom’s new guidelines violate their constitutional rights.

“Banning singing in California churches is an unconstitutional abuse of power. And to do it in the name of a pandemic is despicable,” plaintiff attorney Jordan Sekulow said in a statement. “This ban is clearly targeted at religion. It is clearly a violation of the First Amendment and a direct violation of religious liberty.”

The lawsuit notes that the governor has only prohibited singing and chanting in places of worship, while he has been “unwavering in his support of massive protests” against police brutality, following the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.

“On or about July 2, 2020, following implementation of the Worship Ban, when asked to explain whether people should heed Newsom’s mandate and avoid large crowds and gatherings, Newsom refused to place the same restrictions on protesters and explained ‘we have a Constitution, we have a right to free speech,’ and further stated that ‘we are all dealing with a moment in our nation‘s history that is profound and pronounced … Do what you think is best,’” the lawsuit states.

Singing and praying aloud, the suit argues, “is an integral part of worship” for believers and plaintiffs. It cited scripture that instructs followers to sing.

“Let me be clear, the state does not have the jurisdiction to ban houses of worship from singing praises to God,” Robert Tyler, one of the attorneys filing the lawsuit said in a statement.

Newsom earlier faced criticism for not more quickly allowing religious organizations to resume offering inside services. He relented last month but imposed many restrictions, including limiting crowds to 100 people. He added the order on singing to the state’s 14-page guidance, which reasons that “activities such as singing and chanting negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.”

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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